The 11 Best Things to Do in Santa Monica

Here’s how to get a taste of everything the city has to offer before the sun goes down over Santa Monica Boulevard.

An orange VW van loaded with surfboards on its roof at the beach

If you don’t go surfing, did you actually visit Santa Monica?

Photo by Tyler Nix/Unsplash

Santa Monica’s scenic, 26-mile coastline and sunny year-round weather encourage even the fiercest indoor cat to get outside, no matter when you visit. Just 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the beachfront California city is dotted with open-air shopping and dining, farmers’ markets, more than 100 miles of bike lanes, 20 different parks, and a stretch of break that draws surfers of all skill levels.

Though it spans just eight square miles, Santa Monica offers myriad things to do. Whether you’re looking to relax and listen to the sound of the waves, or ride them on a surfboard, heading to the coast is always a good idea. Here are some of the best things to do in Santa Monica:

Santa Monica Picnic Co. cheese and charcuterie on a blue wooden board

Santa Monica Picnic Co. pack scheese and charcuterie trays like the picnic pro it is.

Photo by Vinh Tu Nguyen

1. Have a private picnic on the beach with Santa Monica Picnic Co.

Santa Monica Picnic Co. will set up everything you need for a coastal picnic, including a basket filled with charcuterie from Andrew’s Cheese Shop, blankets and pillows, mini picnic tables, and special touches like flameless candles, wireless speakers, and a Polaroid camera to record memories. To take the experience up a notch, the company offers add-ons like yoga and surf lessons or a sound bath meditation so you can get zen by the ocean.

Venice's main street with a few cars and bicyclists

Biking in Venice is a rite of passage.

Photo by Emanuel Ekstrom/Unsplash

2. Take a guided bike tour to Venice, or wheel yourself down “the Strand.”

Get a three-hour intro to Santa Monica on an electric bike with Pedal or Not. Riders zip past sand and surf, the Santa Monica Pier, Venice’s famous Muscle Beach, and the canal-lined blocks behind the Venice Boardwalk. An added plus: You’ll receive photographs of the experience in your inbox. For another biking option, grab your own set of wheels and cruise the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, known as “the Strand” to locals. The 22-mile route stretches along the coast from Pacific Palisades to Torrance, so you’ll get scenic glimpses of Southern California cities for free.

An aerial shot of the Santa Monica pier with city in distance

Discover the less-touristed side of century-old Santa Monica Pier with a walking tour.

Photo by Matthew Lejune/Unsplash

3. Learn about Santa Monica Pier’s secrets with a walking tour.

With the Secret Story Tour, you can explore the 114-year history of the Santa Monica Pier, the first concrete pier built on the West Coast; an interactive experience includes hidden clues to unlock little-known stories of the area. The digital quest is suitable for all ages and takes about an hour to explore the sun-splashed landmark. Santa Monica Walking Tours also offer a number of themed adventures to explore the area, including a soon-to-be-launched outdoor brunch tour highlighting local spots.

Exterior of the Aero Theater, with vintage marquee, in Santa Monica

The Aero Theater was originally built for employees of the Douglas Aircraft Company.

Photo by 4kclips/Shutterstock

4. Catch a film at the Aero Theatre.

Location: 1328 Montana Ave. | Find on Google Maps

Located at the corner of 14th Street and Montana Avenue, the Aero Theatre is hard to miss, thanks to its streamline moderne–style facade. The Douglas Aircraft Company originally opened the Aero in 1940 and showed movies around the clock for employees who worked at the nearby aerospace plant, and the theater later made appearances in films like 10 to Midnight (1983) and Donnie Darko (2001). After a period of long decline, the theater closed in 2003, but it was purchased and renovated by the nonprofit organization American Cinematheque, which is dedicated to making publicly shown movies available to all. Nowadays, visitors can catch screenings of classics like Thelma & Louise, There Will Be Blood, and Dog Day Afternoon, often with in-person introductions and Q&As from filmmakers and performers. Check its calendar to see what’s on the docket.

5. Get a lesson in local history on Black Santa Monica Tours.

Book Now

Black Santa Monica Tours and Concierge is headed by Robbie Jones, a Santa Monica native on a mission to introduce visitors to the ways Black culture had an impact on the community. Her passion is, in part, inspired by her grandmother, who owned property in the city’s Pico community. Jones currently offers a walking tour of Santa Monica’s little-known Black history. Schedule by calling 310-928-5891. You can also book a reservation through its website.

Overhead view of three California surfers headed into the water with their boards

You, too, can walk the walk of these California surfers.

Photo by Samuel Ramos/Unsplash

6. Take a proper Southern California surf lesson.

Location: 2701 Barnard Way | Find on Google Maps

It doesn’t get more SoCal than an hour on a surfboard. Aqua Surf gives private lessons with surfboards and wet suits included in the rental, and for those who want more experience under their belt, multi-lesson packages are available. With year-round classes, you’ll go from wobbling to standing to crushing it in no time.

An aerial view of the beach in Santa Monica, with people near and in the water

Santa Monica is home to one of the most popular—and famous—stretches of sand in the nation.

Photo by TierneyMJ/Shutterstock

7. Soak up the sun at the beach

Find on Google maps

Santa Monica State Beach is one of the most famous stretches of sand in the city, if not the country. Spanning 3.5 miles, Santa Monica Beach offers white, sandy stretches and access to a variety of hotels, restaurants, and shops, plus the world-famous Santa Monica Pier. After getting your fill of the sun’s rays, don’t forget to at least make a short stop at the “most famous outdoor gym in the world,” the original Muscle Beach, which later gave rise to Venice’s Muscle Beach (located a little more than two miles south down the coast), where Arnold Schwarzenegger used to flex his pecs.

A peach-colored cocktail at Esters Wine Shop & Bar

A Death Valley Daisy at Esters Wine Shop & Bar

Photo by Lindsey Huttrer

8. Raise a glass at a woman-owned wine bar.

Location: 1314 Seventh St. | Find on Google Maps

Get your fix of diverse varietals in the art deco–inspired Esters Wine Shop and Bar, which features a library of international wines, many from small producers, over a 28-page menu. Wine director Kathryn Coker, a Wine Magazine Top 40 over 40 Tastemaker, is the force behind this favorite local hangout, where mini cheese pairings + wine themes happen every Sunday (like a rosé and white collection for Mother’s Day), presented by sommeliers via video for social distancing.

Baskets of colorful organic herbs and vegetables at Santa Monica farmers' market

Established in 1991, the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market offers a wide variety of organic herbs, veggies, and other produce.

Photo by Sitara_Y/Shutterstock

9. Taste uber-fresh California produce at a local farmers’ market.

Location: 155–199 Arizona Ave. | Find on Google Maps

Santa Monica’s farmers’ markets provide produce to numerous restaurants throughout Los Angeles. There are four weekly markets located in the city’s Downtown, Main Street, and Pico neighborhoods which pop up on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The most famous of the four is the downtown location (open on Wednesdays and Saturdays) and is one of the largest farmers markets in the country. Pro tip: buy some fresh veggies and hummus, then head to the beach to enjoy.

10. Grab tacos and beers at the city’s sole craft brewery.

Location: 1920 Colorado Ave., Suite C | Find on Google Maps

Santa Monica Brew Works is the city’s first and only craft brewery. Enjoy one of its seasonal beers or sample the year-round lineup including the Head in the Clouds Juicy IPA. A curated food truck rotation offers fare ranging from tacos to burgers and even lobster rolls depending on the day. Gluten-free and veggie options are always available. Reservations recommended.

Several ukuleles hanging in window at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica

McCabe’s Guitar Shop is a haven for folk and country music lovers living in Los Angeles.

Photo by Melanie Wynne/Flickr

11. Check out the strings at McCabe’s Guitar Shop

Location: 3101 Pico Blvd. | Find on Google Maps

Visiting McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica feels like a bit of a pilgrimage for any music fan. McCabe’s opened in 1958 and specializes in the sale of acoustic instruments like guitars, banjos, dulcimers, mandolins, and fiddles; musicians can also find a large selection of otherwise-hard-to-find folk sheet music here. Best of all, the store is also a live music venue, and everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Lucinda Williams to Townes Van Zandt has either recorded music here or graced its stage. Bob Dylan is said to be a particular fan of the store. McCabe’s nearly closed during the pandemic, but thanks to a devoted customer base, it’s still going strong.

This article originally appeared online in 2021; it was most recently updated on Ausgust 22, 2023 by Mae Hamilton, to include current information.

Kristin Braswell is a travel journalist and founder of Crush Global Travel. She has penned pieces for Vogue, CNN, USA Today, Essence, NPR, Architectural Digest, Ebony, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Her perfect day includes soca music, rum, and the ocean.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR